Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Political Ideals: the commentary

Consider this a companion piece to my previous blog entry on Russell's essay. Here I will summarize the points made by Russell.

- There are two kinds of possessions (material and mental) and two corresponding sorts of impulses (possesive and creative). The best sort of life is one in which creative impulses dominate. and the best sort of individual is one who is creative, self-actualized, self-motivated, and compassionate towards others. The purpose of political institutions should be to facilitate the development of these sorts of individuals.

- In order to reach a person creative potential, a person must be free from being dominated by possesive impulses which arise from a lack of basic material sustenance. An environment where competition for material goods predominates lead to the aggregation of men into groups who compete for power to maintain material possesions.

- Out of such a society based on competition a form of rationalization takes place in order to justify the prosperity of some by the misery of others. Greed becomes an enshrined virtue. In Russell's view, both wealth and poverty have the power to oppress: wealth, by causing individuals to contemplate on how they might maintain their wealth and thus blind themself to social injustice; poverty, by causing person to contemplate only how material gains may be achieved.

- To reduce the possesive impulse, people need both security and liberty. To achieve this, force must be used. Yet, the only legitimate use of force is to reduce the use of force, and force should be applied only by a neutral public authority which is subject to the rule of law and some form of oversight.

- In economic systems power is unevenly distributed. And that this unequal distribution makes the interest of the individual conflict with the interest of the community in "a thousand ways in which no such conflict ought to exist."

- Despite the possesive impulses and uneven distribution of ecomonomic power, Russell believes that power is the motivating principle of political action. For this reason, any system that does not in some way address the concentration of power will tend towards opression regardless of whether economic want is reduced or not.

- In democratic institutions there is a systemic problem in that those in power, by the nature of their position, are inclined to be opposed to progression, and are likely to sell their influence to those who can help them maintain their power. In this way, wealth and power become intertwined and indistinguishable, and the good of the public becomes a secondary concern.

- In addition to the problem above, there is the issue that social cohesion requires the implementation of law and order. The maintenance of law and order require individual liberty to be curtailed to an extent. Those concerned with law and order will also be predisposed towards resistance to progression, while those who seek to be innovative will seek to break with norms of society. Both mindsets are necessary, and thus a balance must be struck between the two.

- But already there is an imbalance on the side of custom, says Russell. Inherited tradition needs no new defense, but radical new ideas are met with persecution. Through out history, however, many ideas that have been met with resistance turned out to be correct, and thus anyone seeking to enforce an orthodoxy of thought or action should consider the consequences of their action should they turn out to be wrong. By way of this standard, free thought should never be supressed and "no obstacle ... should be placed in the way of statements of fact." (Here Russell shows the influence of his godfather, John Stuart Mill)

- Russell believes that individuals are born with an innate sense of artistic creativity and achievement for the sake of action itself that becomes perverted by political and social institutions in which material goods and possesive impulses are the dominant forces. Individuality becomes subjugated by market forces that seek to produce persons who can function within the system. (For a literary exploration of this motif check out Jules Verne's dystopian Paris in the Twentieth Century or Aldous Huxley's more famous Brave New World)

- As the world has modernized and globalized large buearacratic political and economic structures have developed as a consequence of administrative and organizational needs required to achieve such a level of modernization. These institutions, like groups in power, generally seek to curtail individuality, through tyranny if neccessary or allowed. (One is reminded of McDonald's guru Ray Kroc's words, "we will make conformists out of them in a hurry. . . . The organization cannot trust the individual; the individual must trust the organization.") To combat this, the individuals who comprise the organization should have a say in its functioning.

- Russell then moves on to the realm of international affairs. He does not believe that a state has any more right to claim absolute sovereignity than does the individual, and as such international affairs should be subject to the rule of law and force should be held only by a neutral international body to be used only to reduce the use of force (note the distinction between reducing the use of force and preventing the use of force.)

- Writing during the Great War, Russell is keen to point out that international affairs are in actuality operating under the principle that states have absolute sovereignity, which in practice makes "might makes right" the guiding principle of state action. (A point astutely observed by ancient Greek historian Thucydides in the Melian Dialogue: "... right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.")

- Concluding, Russell envisions a world of global democracy and unity, where the creative arts are praised, valued, and shared, and where possesive impulses no longer dominate the affairs of men.

One should remember that I heavily edited Russell's essay in my previous post. In the essay, there are larger passages that delineate these ideas in greater detail; additionally, there are subjects within the essay that I did not address.

No comments: